Best and worst: writing advice

Today we’re doing best/worst writing advice you’ve seen or heard. Be sure to sound off in the comments with yours.

My least favorite is write every day. This is so often repeated it’s taken on the tone of a rule more than advice, and always with the implication that if you don’t, you are not a real writer. But seriously, all you bossypantses who want to tell me how to run my schedule need to step back. I’m a very good project manager, thank you very much. I’ve got this. And if I want to take Christmas off and spend it with my family, that is okay.

Of course this advice applied to any other profession would sound absurd. You wouldn’t tell a dental hygienist that she’s not a real dental hygienist just because she took a day off. But the undertone here is clear: not only must you write every day, but you must want to write every day. It must be unbearable for you to not write. Only then are you a true artiste.

Which is nonsense. Because not only have we got lives and things that come up and sometimes the flu, and not only are we grownups who can figure out our own work schedules, but for some of us, writing every day is creatively counterproductive. If that’s not the case for you, I’m happy for you, but don’t be all smug about how the way it is for you should be the way it is for everyone. Personally, I can get burned out. Sometimes walking away for a couple of days to recharge my batteries is the best thing for me and for whatever I’m writing.

It all comes down to letting your brain work they way it works, rather than insisting it work the way someone told you it’s supposed to work, or the way you’ve heard it works for a writer you admire.

My favorite common writing advice: write books you want to read. This one is simple to the point of seeming obvious, but I hear people worry over it all the time. Sure, they might like to read popcorn when they’re feeling fried at the end of a long day, and they might find popcorn more fun, but shouldn’t they be writing broccoli? Isn’t broccoli a healthier, more worthy goal? Or maybe they really like broccoli, but they’re concerned about how few other people like broccoli. Wouldn’t popcorn sell better? If they want to sell things to people, and the people want popcorn, wouldn’t writing popcorn be a better idea?

Look, I’m not telling anyone else how to write, because I just got done saying that bossiness is bad. But speaking as an avid reader, when I buy your books, I feel like I can tell if your heart was really in the story or not. And if you aren’t enthusiastic about it, chances are I won’t be either.

And I like “write the books you want to read” much better than its cousin write what you know. I’m not sure anyone who writes fantasy likes that one, but I think it’s especially a problem for those of us whose stories include elements of horror. It’s not so much that I don’t want to write about the things I know, as that I don’t want to know the things I write about.

Okay, now you.

Eleven Questions for: Lyda Phillips

MrTsmallLyda Phillips is a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. Her novel Mr. Touchdown was awarded first place by the Writers Notes Book Awards, juvenile fiction, and an honorable mention from the Independent Publishers Book Awards, multicultural juvenile fiction. A native of San Antonio, Lyda went to school in Memphis, Tennessee, and has degrees from Northwestern, Columbia, and Vanderbilt universities. Here are her positions on eleven burning issues.

Indie authors have a lot of jobs on top of writing. Which do you think is the hardest? Which is the most fun?
My day job?

Sorry, I know you mean all the other things we have to do that a legacy publisher might, or might not, do for us after publication, like advertise, promote, solicit reviews, enter contests, sell to bookstores, buy a booth at BEA and put stacks of the new release on tables, with us behind, signing away. Indie authors have to do 99 percent of that for themselves. The hardest part for me was cold-calling bookstores, schools, review sites, and risking that patronizing pity indie authors so often encounter. That “bless your heart” reaction. The cold touch of loser dust falling on my head.

Absolutely the most fun was school visits. Kids don’t give a flip who published your book. They just like to put off taking the math quiz for an hour or so. Plus they ask great questions and are usually cute. But wait, I just remembered that by far the most satisfying experience I had was visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis (Mr. Touchdown is set in Memphis, 1965), and seeing a group of kids act out a scene from the book. I think a tear or two might have been shed.

Mr. Touchdown deals with some difficult issues. What was the most challenging part of writing it?
Putting my characters in jeopardy. I was in a great writing group in in Nashville at the time and one of us ran across a bit of advice about treating your characters like a teacup on a slanted table, slipping closer and closer to the edge. The advice was to keep tilting the table. It was really hard because you start to love your characters and want to protect them. But that’s not dramatic tension.

There’s a lot of indie vs. traditional debate out there. Name one factor that you don’t see discussed often, but that you think writers should consider when deciding which path to publication is best for them.
I think most writers should make an attempt to publish traditionally, try to get an agent. That process informs and educates, it gives you an eye into what works, what sells, what sucks, what’s ridiculous and mocked, the importance of grammar and proofreading. (Jen? You said you would correct typos, right?) [Note from Jen: I didn’t find any.]

Fill in the blank: When I sit down to write, I must have ________.
a chair.

Seriously, I can write with pen on paper in a coffee shop, on a laptop at work, sending myself an email, in silence or with my husband grinding smoothies next to my ear, sitting on the porch staring out at the yard. What I can’t do is sit up in bed and jot notes to myself.

Plotter or pantser?
A bit of both, I pants and then I plot, pants, plot–back and forth to the last syllable of recorded time …

Mr. Touchdown takes place in 1965. That’s not far in the past, but it was still a very different time. Did you do any particular research or have any particular rituals to put yourself in the right frame of mind?
Mr. Touchdown is semi-autobiographical so a lot of it was memory driven by guilt. I also heavily researched the Civil Rights era, especially events that happened in Memphis, most of those after 1965, like James Meredith’s March Against Fear, the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike, with the chilling slogan, I AM A MAN, which directly led to Dr. King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel. And I could slip into that world just by remembering the smell and sound and chaotic excitement of the cafeteria in my high school.

Best cream pie?
Coconut, but best PIE is Miss Sally Bobo’s Chocolate Fudge Pie, Lynchburg, TN, home also to Jack Daniels.

You write both novels and screenplays. Are you equally comfortable with both? Has your experience with one influenced how you approach the other?
I started with novels, moved to screenplays and felt I had found my place in life. I was a wire service reporter and screenplays totally synched with that rapid fire, no padding, tell the story in dialogue and action. When I tried to move back to writing novels, I have found it very hard to make myself fill in all the thoughts and feelings and description that a screenwriter knows will be handled by the cinematographer and the actors’ faint smiles and raised eyebrows.

What are you reading right now?
I just finished The Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan, and am about to start Under Magnolias, by Frances Mays (Under the Tuscan Sun), which I’m reviewing for Chapter 16, a book review and essay site sponsored by the Tennessee Humanities Council.

Best marketing tip?
Don’t let your hurt feelings make you quit calling.

Fictional character you’d like to hang out with?
Boris from The Goldfinch


If you’re an indie author and would like to answer eleven questions, email me.

Seeking indie authors with eleven answers

I’m looking for indie authors to answer eleven questions as part of an interview series. The interviews are meant to be fun and relatively light, and most of the questions will be brief. They’ll be roughly divided between indie publishing, writing, and random/silly questions. (Some may fall into all three categories.) To give you an idea, you can see the first installment here.

Email me if you’re interested.

Guardians of the Galaxy and the clever application of tropes

Guardians of the Galaxy is hilarious, and silly, and fun, and thoroughly entertaining. So like many silly and fun things, there will be some who dismiss it in terms of “real” value, or laugh at the idea that there’s anything to be learned from it. But you shouldn’t, and here’s why: Guardians of the Galaxy does some skillful, even admirable, storytelling.

Because it’s an origin story, but not your typical superhero origin story; it’s the origin story of a team of five. Consider what this movie is tasked with:

  1. Establish five individual characters so they feel like real characters. (From scratch, mind. This isn’t The Avengers, where most of them have had individual movies ahead of time.)
  2. Establish their dynamics as a team and their relationships with one another.
  3. Acclimate the audience to the universe. Be sure they understand its rules.
  4. Be sure the audience is clear on the main conflict and the stakes of failure.
  5. Establish not only the villain and stakes of the current story, but the overarching villain and stakes in this universe, a conflict that will not be resolved in this installment but must still feel like a present danger.
  6. Leave the audience with enough unanswered questions to make sure they buy the next one, but not so many that they feel frustrated or that the story feels incomplete.

But that’s the job of the first installment of any series, right? Sure. Except:

  1. Do it all in two hours, but without ever slowing the pace, so the audience is constantly engaged in a steady stream of action and never feels the exposition at all.

Did you see it? Did you feel the exposition? I didn’t, except when they wanted me to, and never in a bad way. There are few storytellers who can accomplish that list both well and with economy.

They do it largely by using tropes, which may sound lazy and the exact opposite of what any storyteller should do. But while tropes are easy, doing them right is hard. Here they use them skillfully and playfully, as shorthand to acclimate you, without crossing over into boring you because you’ve seen this story before. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Guardians a spoof. (I’ve seen it compared to Spaceballs, but I think it’s more of a story in its own right, that could exist apart from the stories that inspired it.) But it’s certainly tongue-in-cheek enough to embrace its clichés.

Case in point: within five minutes of the introduction of the adult Peter Quill, we’re given very clear visual connections to both Indiana Jones and Han Solo. And I’m just talking about the shots here, not the dialogue or the action. The audience for a sci-fi superhero movie almost certainly already speaks that language. Which means we’re now more than halfway to understanding this character without them having to do anything else to get us there.

As another example, for pretty much the entire first act, very little is explained. We are not explicitly told how the universe works, or what anybody is talking about, or what Quill has, or what it does, or why, or who is chasing him for it, or who belongs to any of the names we’re hearing and why we should care. There is absolutely no as-you-know-Bobbing. Because we don’t need that. We’ve seen enough Artifacts of Doom to know this orb is a Bad and Dangerous thing, and that’s really all we need to know for a long time. So they can afford to wait to explain the specifics of infinity stones until they can do it without much pause to the action, in a scene where it feels natural.

They make all these formula elements work for them rather than against them in a few ways. First, they’re funny about it, and they don’t try to hide it. It’s okay that it’s heavy-handed because it’s a joke we’re all in together.

Second, while they pull at least half their characters off the stock shelf, they don’t just throw them into the movie as-is. They give them their own quirks and strengths and vulnerabilities. And every performance in this movie is good. As a character, Peter Quill is probably the most cardboard one we have here, but Chris Pratt’s performance is such that you not only see a distinct character, you can’t imagine anyone else in the role. He owns Peter Quill, and Peter Quill is not interchangeable in this story with any of the others of his kind.

It’s not just the acting that makes it all work. The team responsible for Rocket Raccoon should be provided with a big stack of money and complimentary pastries every single day. Talking animals rarely work on the screen, but Rocket is expressive in ways many live actors will only ever aspire to be. His face is brilliant.

The same applies, to a lesser degree, to Groot. They took a tree who says three words, and still managed to give him a personality.

Finally, and arguably most importantly, they’ve got something to back the tropes up with. They use them for shortcuts, but the shortcuts actually lead somewhere. This is a Marvel story, and as such, it has a full, longstanding, legitimately created mythology and universe to tap into.

So what’s my point? Maybe it’s that tropes can be great tools when properly applied. Maybe it’s that it is indeed possible to make exposition painless. Or maybe it’s just that you should see Guardians of the Galaxy, because seriously, you should. It’s a riot.

Everything is awesome

So here is the website redesign. What do you think? Super exciting and super awesome? I can’t link you to the artist because she hasn’t got a site up and running yet, but the rook drawings were done by hand and scanned. I know zilch about graphics so the process was fun to learn about. (The guy who did the scanning asked me if I needed a vector image. I don’t know what that is, so I said I didn’t think so. Do I need a vector image?) The same artist will be doing my book cover, and I’ll have some of that artwork going up soon.

Speaking of which, I know you already know all about my book, because I give you no choice when you come to my site but to LOOK AT MY BOOK PAGE. But I can’t expect you to remember it all the way in November, so be sure to sign up for my newsletter and you’ll get a reminder. I’ll post a sample here when the final proofreading is done.

And speaking of that, I am so happy to have found a proofreader I’m looking forward to working with. Be sure to check out her site if you’re in the market for one, because that was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I’ve done some proofreading myself and I intend to start picking up some freelance proofreading later this year, so maybe I’m picky, but isn’t being picky sort of the point? Of proofreading? So you shouldn’t have half a dozen errors on the same page where you suggest I pay you hundreds of dollars to proofread my book. Also protip: if you think proofreader is two words, you aren’t one. I’m not naming names. I’m just saying.

(Now that I’ve said that, someone will be along to point out half a dozen errors in this post or on my site somewhere. Which is why everyone needs a proofreader. It doesn’t matter how well you know your stuff. You can’t see the stuff in your own stuff.)

That brings me to my last speaking-of-which, because I like to end my posts on an angry and snotty note whenever possible:

Hachette, people.

There is no t in the middle. This is driving me completely bonkers. If you’re a writer, spelling things right is part of your job. So if you expect me to take your opinion on this whole thing seriously, you need to learn to spell the names of the parties involved.

*Post title ripped off from The Lego Movie, which is indeed awesome.